Heaviness and laughter

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December 14th 2013
Published: December 14th 2013
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We experienced a great range of emotions today. We began with an early morning visit to Toul Sleng (S-21), a Khmer Rouge extermination center that is now a genocide museum in downtown Phnom Penh. Toul Sleng was a school before the Khmer Rouge came to power; it was converted to an internal interrogation and torture center. After extracting confessions for mostly false charges, the Khmer Rouge drove the victims to Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) and killed them and their families.

This was my third trip, and my second in a support role for other people on the trip. I made it a thorough visit, stopping in just about every room and reading all the placards. I periodically made a circuit of my students to see how the different clumps were faring. Because it was less crowded, it was possible to feel the heaviness of the place. Perhaps a new feature was the presence of two survivors of S-21 (there were only a handful when the place was liberated, and very few more who lived through it at all). Each of the two was selling his Cambodian-published memoir. I bought both without previewing them; it seemed only just. Several of the students did as well, so we're going to read and discuss them together.

We then took tuk-tuks out to Choeung Ek. The first time I did this, in 2006, the whole stretch wasn't even paved, if I remember correctly. In 2011 it had been paved and was smooth. Now it's all torn up again, badly enough that our driver stopped to pick up paper nose/mouth masks for us.

New since my last visit was the audioguide included in the admission price. It was very well made, clear, and included both music and additional information as options. The offensive plaques insisting that the genocide was worse than the Holocaust were gone, and in the museum there was what appeared to be an abbreviated version instead. The tone of the site remains quiet and respectful, and perhaps more so with everyone plugged into an audio headset. In my tuk-tuk, we had a good conversation about the Holocaust Museum in DC and the Auschwitz and Birkenau exhibitions. On the way there, it was about the Anne Frank House.

After some down time at the hotel, much of which I spent talking with a student, we headed for dinner at Friends. Although they've switched to a tapas menu (tapas with a Khmer twist, to be clear), they were willing to get us fried tarantulas from sister establishment Romdeng. While we waited for the spiders we got tapas, including a beef and fire ant dish. Although we only ordered 3 plates of spiders, we received 5, so there were plenty to go around. The restaurant thoughtfully included a live tarantula as well, which got out of its container and onto the table, scaring those persons at its end and vastly entertaining the rest of us at the other. There were about 16 fried spiders in all, which most of the students and K ate with various degrees of trepidation. Some found they quite liked the taste and ate several; others ate a few legs; a couple of vegetarians ate none but did pose with them for the sake of community solidarity.

My students are woefully ignorant of owling. I have demonstrated the meme, though I know that owling is like so 2011. There now exists a photo of me owling on a boat near the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, and one of me owling at Friends with a fried tarantula in my mouth. I'll see if they'll deign to tag me on Facebook so I can see them.

I modeled the photo here on the mid-80's television series V. The early episodes showed the aliens luxuriously gulping down mice. Then, I am told, the production budget ran low, so they'd pick up a mouse, begin to eat it, and be interrupted before expensive special effects were needed.

We sent a video challenging the students from our major who are in India right now to try a new food. How the world has contracted that a woman in a Phnom Penh restaurant can shoot and transmit a video to her classmate in an ashram in Pondicherry in seconds. And yet I still can't figure out my toaster.

This was a lot of fun for ~$17 in spiders, and much needed after a difficult day. I recommend it if you're in the neighborhood.


14th December 2013

Looks like your over feeling ill, and working on a second round!
14th December 2013

Please; I hygienically ate the spider with my right hand.
15th December 2013

Interesting to know.....
....the general 'feeling' of the students having gone through the Toul Sleng (S-21). Sitting here reading your description....thinking of the suffering that is beyond my comprehension....tears fill my eyes. It is simply so challenging to imagine how a human being comes to believe they have the right to inflict such horrors on other living things. I appreciate your reminder that.....there is so much more in this world, than my warm little family room, fire flickering as I read and type. What a dichotomy of behavior.
18th December 2013

Thanks as always for your comments. I'm hoping the students will write about their visit soon. Send me a private message (as opposed to a comment) and I'll give you the address where they're blogging.
19th December 2013

What a day!
I am finally catching up on your blog. What a wonderful experience so far! Thanks for sharing. The pictures are such a nice addition.

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